Everton three, Stoke City four
What a game! Everyone has said it and that’s because it is true. Everton v. Stoke City was one of the matches of the season. Everton scored three at home but that wasn’t even good enough for a draw. Not because they were facing one of the big clubs. No, it was because Stoke decided that they were going to show up and score four.
Seven goals. In a match between Everton and Stoke. It is just not supposed to happen. Conventional wisdom dictates that these are respectable mid-table clubs with solid British players who grind out victories by no more than a solitary goal, on the scoring of which the team shuts shop.
And these weren’t the usual goals from set-pieces either. They did not come from a Rory Delap throw-in-which-is-actually-a-corner-kick. They did not come from brawls resulting from balls hoofed into the box. The scorers were all decidedly non-British. They included a Belgian, a Catalan, a Swiss, an Austrian and a Spaniard. The English league is becoming global alright.
Just clear the ball, lad!
Even as recently as four years back, Everton and Stoke were the very definition of mid-table teams. The style of football they played was best described as pragmatic. Traditional wingers would run down the byline and put in crosses for the big man (Stoke went as far as to hire the tallest of them all, Peter Crouch), while the back four were more brawlers than defenders who wore their yellow cards as badges of honour. The average pass would span half the length of the pitch as teams took the fastest way to get the ball away from their goal.
Everton was being managed by that wily Scotsman, David Moyes, who could do wonders with the limited budget he was given and unearth some fine British talent along the way. Rumours of him eventually succeeding one of his countrymen at a much bigger club were already doing the rounds.
Stoke had a Welshman at the helm in the ‘capped’ Tony Pulis. The football they played was never pretty but was certainly effective as they became a permanent fixture in mid-table. The Britannia stadium too earned a reputation as a tough proving ground; as everyone was put to the test of ‘would it/they/he/she be able to do it on a cold, rainy night at Stoke?’
The times, they are a changing
Now though, things have changed and how! Everton got Roberto Martinez, a Catalan (which means that he is inherently graceful and loves possession-based football) as their manager. Martinez does come with his side effects as his last team, Wigan Athletic discovered when they won the FA Cup and lost the relegation battle in the same season.
He brought in Gerald Deulofeu, a Barcelona youth product and made permanent the deal for Romelu Lukaku, the one-time successor to Didier Drogba at Chelsea. Everton also produced from its youth ranks a certain Ross Barkley. With the England left-back Leighton Baines marshalling the defence and Gareth ‘Garry’ Barry a solid presence in midfield, Everton has slowly become the neutral’s choice in most matches.
In the race for the biggest transformation at a football club though, Everton would most certainly be pipped by Stoke. Their metamorphosis from one time Neanderthalic strongmen of the Premier League to the twinkle-footed giant-slayers of the present has been overseen by Mark Hughes, one of the rare footballers to have succeeded as a manager. Incidentally, his tenure at the club has ensured that the club’s perseverance with Welsh managers has paid off.
Stoke have the old warhorse Jonathan Walters as their top authentic forward but the real story is the quartet which plays right behind him. Marko Arnautovic, Ibrahim Afellay, Bojan Krkic and Xherdan Shaqiri are all Champions League winners and each on their day could leave the best defenders in the world on the seat of their pants. The defence is not shabby either with another Champions League winner in Marc Muniesa and former Manchester United man Ryan Shawcross closing down opponents.
Both teams have filled their ranks with technically sound players who love to pass through teams rather than over them. Both have their tricksters who embarrass defenders and strong frontmen who always seem to have a goal in them. Attractive-looking football doesn’t always pay but it certainly is paying for both these teams who are very much in contention for the European spots.
Change is good
And they have not just been beating the relegation scrappers. Everton took out Chelsea while Stoke went a step further and have already defeated Chelsea, Manchester City and Manchester United in the league this season.
But it’s not the wins that are remarkable about this story. Each season brings with it its own upsets as some team in a relegation battle pulls off a surprise win over a Champions League contender. One needs to look no further than Newcastle United’s recent win over high-flying Tottenham to see that form and reputation count for little in this league.
However, what was far more interesting was the manner in which these teams were defeated. The margin in these games was not a single goal from a set-piece after which the team sat back to defend. No, these wins were the likes of which are inflicted by equals. The matches were end-to-end as wonderful moves were converted into goals by clinical forwards.
The supporters of both the clubs will be the first to admit that their defences are not the best in the league. The attacking flair has come at the cost of some defensive solidity. However, this is exactly what makes this fixture all the more exciting. Some of the most mercurial talents in the league were on show and neither team sat back to soak up the pressure. There were quick one-twos, slide rule passes and some astonishing finishing at the end of it. All of this certainly combined to make this one of the most fun fixtures of the season.